RTD, transit workers union agree to new contract that could help alleviate driver woes

RTD is banking on higher wages and improved benefits in a new collective bargaining agreement to help attract bus and train operators.

Southmoor Station, Jan. 24, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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An RTD bus drives through the Colfax Avenue cloverleaf at Federal Boulevard, Feb. 6, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) colfax; sun valley; traffic; transportation; kevinjbeaty; denverite; colorado; denver;
An RTD bus drives through the Colfax Avenue cloverleaf at Federal Boulevard, Feb. 6, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Regional Transportation District is banking on higher wages and improved benefits introduced by a new collective bargaining agreement to help attract bus and train operators in what an RTD spokesman said is a “hot” Colorado economy.

The three-year agreement between RTD and ATU Local 1001 was approved by union members Saturday and could address some of the biggest challenges the regional transit system faced in the last year. A report last year suggested that as RTD struggled to keep drivers, its service struggled.

Scott Reed, assistant general manager of communications, said Tuesday RTD has been competing with numerous local shipping services and trucking businesses workers.

“This is a big step toward recruiting more and retaining more bus and train operators and mechanics, because the economy is so hot right now that we’re having a difficult time attracting and retaining them,” Reed said.

Local 1001 Union President Julio Rivera posted the results of the union vote on his Facebook page on Saturday along with a congratulatory note. The collective bargaining agreement was a hit among union members: It was approved by 88 percent. 

The agreement increases the starting wages for an operator to $19.40, up from $17.59. It also addresses working conditions, which were a concern among workers.

“This starting wage puts us just above the midpoint in the local market and if you add in our comprehensive benefits package, including a pension, we’re extremely competitive as an employer,” Reed said.

Rivera said members thought it was a good contract.

“Everything that we sought to get we actually got from the company,” he said. “The main goal that we had going out to contract negotiations is to help address working conditions, attrition rates. RTD has had an extremely difficult time maintaining operators.”

The new contract increases wages across the board and helps reduce mandatory overtime.

According to the Board of Directors report provided by RTD, each occupational group will receive an 8 percent increase starting in March, followed by a 3 percent increase in March 2019 and March 2020. The report highlights some of the changes in the new agreement. The agreement received a “yes” recommendation from the union’s executive board and negotiation team. The tentative agreement between the union and RTD was reached on Feb. 28, prior to the current contract expiration.

And those work conditions Rivera mentioned? One highlight of the new agreement was a guaranteed bathroom breaks. Before, Rivera said, using the facilities was more of a “touch and go” situation.

“Imagine you’re out there doing a 10-hour (shift) … without something as simple as a bathroom break,” Rivera said.

Rivera said 90 percent of operators had been required to work on a day off; the new agreement stipulates no operator will be required to work on his or her day off. Another new feature in the agreement is that RTD must provide 72 hours notice to workers for mandatory overtime. It’s a drastic change from the previous notice time, which Rivera said was essentially given as “you walked out the doors” in the last-second.

“These are grown folks,” Rivera said. “We have families. We have commitments. It went for a long time where you couldn’t attend your kids graduation ceremonies, dentist appointments.”  

The new contract won’t allow day-shift operators to stay beyond 8 p.m., while nighttime operators won’t be able to get assignments before 9:30 a.m., Rivera said

With a new contract in place, RTD will make a hiring push starting next month.

According to Reed, RTD currently has 139 vacancies for bus drivers (13 percent) and 59 vacancies for light rail drivers, which is nearly a third of their workforce (27 percent).

Covering the gaps made by those vacancies has meant mandatory overtime, which is now limited with the new contract. While overtime may sound like more money in your pocket, as Reed points out, it’s usually done on your own terms.

“We want to get away from mandating overtime and being able to let people choose when they (work) overtime, when it’s available,” Reed said.

For a more permanent fix, RTD will launch an “aggressive” marketing campaign to hire more operators next month, Reed said.

The push will include print and radio advertising. Reed said it will include personal outreach at events and employment fairs.

While Reed said the agency usually advertises on top-rated radio stations, this year will include radio ads on Spanish-speaking stations to help broaden their reach.

“We think that it’s a bit of an untapped market for what could be a very successful career with RTD,” Reed said, adding that they’re interested in hiring more bilingual drivers.

Esteban L. Hernandez

Author: Esteban L. Hernandez

Esteban L. Hernandez is covering politics and other general assignment topics for Denverite. A native of Aurora, he previously worked at the New Haven Register and Register Citizen in Connecticut. He's a graduate of Hinkley High School in Aurora and the University of Colorado. He can be reached at 303-502-2805, ehernandez@denverite.com or @EstebanHRZ on Twitter.